How the ego hijacks spiritual development.
Posted Jan 06, 2021
As we develop ourselves spiritually, we become wiser people who can transcend our egos and accept each other without judgment. Moreover, spiritual training schools promise that working on your accepting, attentive being-in-the-here-and-now will help you eat, sleep, listen, focus, love, laugh, and live a better life. There is a wide array of spiritual trainings, from energetic training with no scientific basis – learning to read or heal auras and chakras, or regress people to previous lives – to methods that have demonstrably beneficial effects, such as mindfulness training. In fact, there is scientific support for many elements of the Buddhist teachings that underlie many spiritual doctrines – such as the idea that people amplify their suffering by their own fears and their resistance to the inconveniences of life, such as failure and rejection. But regardless of the training system, there is a persistent human flaw that seriously hinders the path to spiritual enlightenment: our ego.
Look how enlightened I am!
Our ego is always on the lookout to reinforce its own grandeur and specialness. It happens with success in work, sports, or relationships – and also spiritual accomplishments. For example, you notice that thanks to your spiritual training you have become more authentic, or someone compliments you about it. Then, in an unguarded moment, your ego jumps out from behind the bushes to hijack the success: ‘See how great I’m doing!’ – and there goes your authenticity. Because now your ego wants to exploit it: to impress others with your acquired insights, or to feel more special than others.
An executive searcher once told me: "Success is a major liability if your stance in life is not intrinsically modest." The ego adopts everything for its own use. The belief that your spiritual wisdom makes you more special than others is also known as spiritual narcissism. It can be used to shield yourself from criticism, to impress others, or to enhance your-self-esteem and feel good about yourself. It is tempting to view yourself as superior when you feel you are making progress on your spiritual path. But essentially, it implies that you missed a crucial turn.
Going through the motions
Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa has described how the ego can imitate a meditative, detached attitude, while one has not really surrendered to the experiences that go with it. In this case, you are merely going through the motions of spiritual growth. Nevertheless, the excitement and satisfaction of your new discoveries can feel grand and dramatic: "I am free!" People come to believe in their spiritual liberation – when they are in fact exploiting the spiritual techniques to enhance their individual self-esteem. Trungpa views this as a huge obstacle on the way to enlightenment. He calls it "cheap," a sign of disdain for the human intellect. He makes a comparison with flying: People get on board the training and say: let’s take off, start the engine! It doesn't work like that. Before you can really fly, you must first understand where you are now.
Not only the needs of the ego hinder the path to spiritual growth, but other motives too. Many people start mindfulness training to reduce complaints such as insomnia, stress or rumination, or because they want to become wiser, more peaceful, more observant. With these motives, you enter the realm of what Trungpa called spiritual materialism. They are aimed at individual well-being. Your individual self, that wants to feel good, covers your awake self like a nice, warm, sleep-inducing blanket. Moreover, the starting point is that something should be fixed or improved. But it is impossible to see where you are if you’re looking ahead, not accepting where you are.
Looking at your own thoughts
True spiritual development requires a high level of conscious attention. Psychologists distinguish two systems: the conscious, reflective versus the unconscious, automatic system. The need to feel better or elevate our ego is part of the unconscious system. These needs are instinctive and hard-wired; they automatically regulate our responses, like eating and drinking. The unconscious system is always "on", even when we are not paying attention. The conscious, reflective system only works with sufficient attention. And this is precisely the system we require to stay spiritually focused. It is also the system that allows us to take a meta-perspective and look at our own thoughts and feelings – in Trungpa's flight analogy, to see where we are.
The key to mindfulness and spiritual awakening is recognizing what presents itself in the here and now – without wanting to go anywhere; without judging what we observe, without wanting to brush it away or correct it. For example, while meditating you notice that your thoughts have become attached to an issue, and your first response may be: Oops, that's not allowed. But "not allowed" is a judgment. The trick is to simply notice that such thoughts are there, and view them with an open mind, with curiosity, without trying to suppress them. The same applies to the ego's movements and other materialistic motives. With sufficient attention, calmness, and a critical eye that dares to question everything, you can observe those movements within yourself. Then you might see, for example, that you rate your own degree of spiritual wisdom higher than that of the others, the ones I’m writing about in this article; or perhaps how quickly you got the point and recognized this trap in yourself – without properly examining it in-depth.
Thoughts like these indicate that you are only human, like we all are, with an ego that yearns for recognition and validation. By observing the thoughts and feelings of the spiritual narcissist within yourself – following their patterns and their dynamics, instead of pretending you have already overcome them – you discover where you are.
Awake now? Morning has broken. Here you are.
Vonk, R. & Visser, A. (2020). An Exploration of Spiritual Superiority: The Paradox of Self-Enhancement. European Journal of Social Psychology.